Monday, 10 April 2017

Breaking the Myth of Equality

Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
‘Know the enemy and know yourself,’ wrote Sun Tzu, ‘and you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.’ Sun Tzu was referring to knowledge—and the right kind of knowledge, he noted, brings victory.
The enemy I speak of is colonialism. Not the colonialism which, for some, may seem to lie in the distant past, but colonialism in the new and (almost) universal understanding of the word -- namely, those features of colonialism which persist long after the coloniser has formally withdrawn. Colonialism in the new view refers to influence, ties, privilege, specialisation, domination, exploitation, and superiority.

The contrast between the old and the new was tragically highlighted recently when a South African premier, Helen Zille, respected for her role in exposing a major apartheid era cover-up,  took to social media to declare that colonialism had brought about positives, including the judiciary and the transport system. This was the old view, a shallow understanding of colonialism which was out of touch with the world in which we now live, and heartless.  In the new view of colonialism, many consider the positives unintended benefits—for the reason that the system was not created to benefit the majority, but only a certain group.

Colonialism, in the new understanding of the term, cannot be justified under any circumstances. To justify it may be compared with a woman who is raped, falls pregnant, and gives birth to a beautiful child. The child grows to be a successful young man, and now the rapist sends a letter to the victim, that the rape has brought blessing for all. In this case, the victim wishes not to be on equal terms with the perpetrator. The Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire said about colonialism, ‘I am talking about societies drained of their essence, cultures trampled underfoot, institutions undermined, lands confiscated, religions smashed, magnificent artistic creations destroyed, extraordinary possibilities wiped out.’

How then shall we overcome the enduring legacy of colonialism? How may we finally break the heavy yoke? I return to the subject of knowledge. In three areas in particular, I see our knowledge of the situation as being critical to its transformation. All of these areas need to be clearly understood, because they serve as enduring instruments which contribute to the reluctance of the oppressor to be equal to the oppressed:
• Knowledge of racism. Race is the major factor which the oppressor uses to exploit natives, even foreigners. The ability to convince a certain group, often implicitly and insidiously, that a certain colour of skin is lordly, has to be the greatest instrument used to ensure that equality remains a myth.  Even today, it would seem that most people find credence in this illogical belief. Through this perspective, many cultures have distorted and damaged their own norms, values, and practices, particularly in Africa.

• Knowledge of religion. Is the information provided by religious leaders a message that promotes equality, while uplifting the soul and uniting society? Or does religion factor into inequality because, with disregard for our social status, it proclaims that in God’s eyes we are all equal? Many religious leaders, too, proclaim a prosperity gospel, selling the idea to many in society that wealth is accumulated through worshiping God in a certain way—yet through the same message, they themselves become rich, so practically denying the quest for equality.

• Knowledge of generational wealth. Generational wealth proves that inheritance is a foreign word to many Black Africans. This wealth was fashioned through taking advantage of the preferential treatment that White people received through colonialism—and in South Africa, through apartheid. It is common knowledge that a White South African has greater opportunity of living a monetarily comfortable life than a Black South African counterpart. To equalise this requires that the one who is ahead uplifts the one who is left behind. The anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko emphasised that White people should gather amongst themselves to discuss their common problem.
Sadly, those who ought to be at the forefront of developing Africa’s knowledge in these things have so often failed us themselves. The very people who should be helping us—religious and non-religious leaders, and members of state—operate on the same level as colonialists. They perpetuate a system of oppressor vs. oppressed. A sectional few desire equality, and in South Africa, we have now become the most unequal nation on earth.

The need is knowledge which teaches, rebukes, corrects, and trains—a kind of knowledge which is above all price for building a united society, because it helps us to do what is right. The Liberty Life Group in South Africa issued the following statement: ‘Knowledge is not merely fact. It is not a badge. It is not a bragging right. It is those few words that completely, utterly alter the way you see things.’ May we share knowledge that will build, unite, and assist us in redressing the injustices of our continent.

Image acknowledgement: Collectie Tropenmuseum.


  1. Thanks for the essay, Sifiso; there’s much to think about here.

    To me, one of the more pernicious holdovers of colonialism is the resulting entrenched legacy — systems of governance, social order, cultural routines, systems of justice, institutional architecture, and others — left by colonial rulers in the wake of their eventual departure. The former rulers’ conceit being, of course, that there’s only one right way to do things. What makes this legacy all the more injurious is its dogged persistence — not easily uprooted and replaced by indigenous social order. A critical outcome of such embedded legacy is, as a matter of practice, to deny populations their fundamental human right of ‘self-determination’. The spillover effects of colonial social and cultural imprinting — despite often the passage of decades — are hard to unravel and can stubbornly linger through history, over future generations. In doing so, stubborn colonialism merely morphs, not dissolves, in all its inequalities.

    1. Keith,thank you. If I'm not mistaken your view seems to promote pro freedom from a liberal point.
      How certain can one be that 'self-determination'will not result in infringement that will have dippy unintended inequalities?

      Just playing devil's advocate.😉

    2. Yes, Sifiso, you're right on both fronts. Certainly, unintended consequences have been the bane of us all at one time or another -- especially when it comes to such complex and knotty matters as colonialism and its after effects. That said, I see 'self-determination' as including the right to be wrong.

    3. That is verifiable Keith. What I would put to the table is that solutions to curtail the risk of unintended consequences should be expressed and implemented in all societies to make certain that the progression of societies for future generations allows 'self-determination' to flourish.

    4. Dear Sifiso

      The main search in your essay seems in how to find that 'magic stick' that would wake up human being. The way you describe knowledge, (quote) 'to alter the way you see things', is maybe not as complete as the words may sound. After all, knowledge does not lack in this human world. The problem, as you mention, is where we place that knowledge that would break the myth of equality, or the myth of inequality? Is knowledge enough to truly understand what injustice means?

      I am afraid, many persons are simply not aware when they act 'unjust’ and maybe we are all part of a certain injustice in our behaviour, because we are unaware of how unaware we are. To recognise the verisimilitude of our own improbability, could maybe help to build consciousness, or at-least to get rid of anger and frustration, the illusion of profit, self-image etc. But no system will ever give that, for it would not be a system any longer.

      Where to place self-determination?

    5. Hi Tessa, many humans are knowledgeable I agree. The problem is those who are more well informed use that information to oppress those who lack information and therefore creates inequality. As a friend mentioned this past few days that JUSTICE systems are used to bring INJUSTICE therefore knowledge is not enough if it is not followed by just acts to truly understand what injustice is. (When you do the right thing, you are able to recognize what is wrong and condemn it).

      How do we build consciousness without creating a system during that process that will have a negative impact on societies? Should we start by conscientising our leaders who strongly believe in the "illusion of profit" or ourselves who strongly depend on the system?

    6. Often intelligence is found where less expected.

      As long as one is in defence, we tighten our perception and everything becomes personal. When we cannot take distance from our own beliefs, there is no space to observe. As a result, everything is formed into judgement. This has not helped human being in seeing the most simple thing: that basically we all have the same needs. Why is it so difficult to profoundly experience this? Though it cannot be educated. ( I think this is the difference between knowledge and awareness).

      IMHO, we build consciousness within ourselves, and maybe in the reflection it will flow, but nobody can/ or should be forced into a state of being it cannot recognise. Which brings me to the point: what do we recognise? Here is a key for change, but the recognition is obviously not where we think it is. This is what we seem to be unable to see, to formulate, and thus we fall back into old fashioned dualism.

  2. Very timely essay, Sifiso... All over the world divisions are re-emerging.

    Thinking of Europe though, the hostility that leads to Britons being attacked in the streets by people shouting 'Britain First!" underlines to me that racism is NOT the real problem, not I submit to you, is 'colonialism'... though the rhetoric of this has been so popular in the UK recently about our European 'masters' who, in fact, are ourselves.

    The success of the Europeans has been in developing shared laws and economic structures that foster co-operation and create mutual interests. I see your points about ossified "Generational wealth" as crucial in this regard.

    Thanks again for this thought-provoking essay!

    1. Hi Martin, thank you very much for this comment it reminds me of a question I received from Nonjabulo Dladla, she basically raised the fact that the success of the Europeans 'masters' has made some if not many (quote)"former colonial countries to be referred to as third world countries and others emerging markets. Which brings the question, will they ever be developed markets or first world countries?" to eradicate the inequality in generational wealth.

    2. Yes, we might consider the example of China here? China used to be treated with great contempt by the West, with those forced 'concessions' (territorial grabs) and unequal trade policies. But now China is the world's second economy, and everyone needs its products - and cash! But as we know within China, the inequalites have increased dramatically - even if there HAS been a remarkable transformation of many people's lives...

      Some African commentators indeed now complain China has become a colonial power in its own right...?

      Great to read so many comments here, your thoughtful responses are I'm sure part of the reason!

  3. It has been an extremely popular post. It is thought-provoking, yes. A rich essay.

    From the point of view of classical philosophy, I would have a question, which is suggested, too, in the comments above. Socrates proposed that self-knowledge is a sufficient condition to the good life. Knowledge = happiness. But is it? And does the 'enemy' not have the same knowledge? Reading over your post again, I wonder whether by 'knowledge' you really have more than knowledge in mind, something deeper.

    1. It may be a key to the good life, the real question should however be, what is the 'good life'? The enemy is knowledgeable, the main problem of the enemy is his heart.

    2. Yes, some of Tess's points reminded me of the great debates in Plato's dialogues about definitions and subjectivity...